February 19, 2015
The Syrian army began battles on several fronts around Aleppo Tuesday in an attempt to complete the encirclement of rebel-held areas inside the city, reported pro-regime Halab News Network.
Aside from capturing and holding at least two villages in the northern countryside, cutting off rebel supply routes running south into the Aleppo, regime forces also initiated attacks on locations just north and west of the city.
Opposition news outlets and citizen journalists have since reported on the heavy presence of Hezbollah, Iranian, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite soldiers fighting on the side of, and in some cases instead of, the Syrian army [see, for example, the Aleppo Media Center here].
But at least one pro-regime journalist on the ground is denying the presence of foreign fighters for the government.
“The news about Hezbollah and Iranian officers being present is false,” Rida al-Basha, an Aleppo-based correspondent with pro-regime Lebanese channel al-Mayadeen, tells Syria Direct's Osama Abu Zeid.
The confusion arose when Shiite fighters from the pro-regime Shiite towns of Nubul and Zahraa donned Hezbollah garb, causing rebels to misidenify them as Hezbollah fighters, al-Basha said.
“The number of Hezbollah members [in the Aleppo front] probably isn't more than the fingers of one hand—and three of them were war journalists.”
Q: The information and pictures that show Hezbollah's significant presence in the current operations [in Aleppo], and Iranian officers leading said operations—to what extent is this information true?
The news about Hezbollah and Iranian officers being present is false.
The matter is as follows: there are young men from the [Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahra] wearing Hezbollah clothing, and writing the slogan 'O Zeinab here I am at your service, O Hussein.'
I can name names of some such young men who were martyred, like the martyr Mohammed Dharar and others. I can give you a lot of names.
The [rebel] militants thought these martyrs were Iranian because they didn't surrender themselves and fought until they were martyred. As for Iranians, there are none—none.
Dozens of regime soldiers surrender in the Aleppo countryside. Photo courtesy of @Al_Jazirah.
Q: So how do explain the killing of the Al-Manar channel's director during the battles? Keeping in mind that Al-Manar is Hezbollah's official channel?
I want to clarify that two people were filming the operations, a director with Al-Manar and a second person from Hezbollah who works in war journalism. They were both martyred, the first was known as Karar and the second Kameel.
They were with some members of Hezbollah. In an operation that contained 1,500 fighters, I can tell you that the number of Hezbollah members probably isn't more than the fingers of one hand—and three of them were war journalists.
Q: Is the news about the rebels retaking Herdtein in northern Aleppo true?
The army took control of Herdtein yesterday [Wednesday] and is still in full control of it.
Q: Media reports are saying that the Syrian army's attack aiming at completing the encirclement of Aleppo “failed,” after videos were released of [regime soldiers who were] killed and taken prisoner. How would you describe the ongoing battles?
Those media reports are false. Battles are still ongoing, the army made progress in the southern al-Malah farms and is still located there.
Q: Will the army’s loss of Ratyan impact its progress?
As for Ratyan—it was decided that the military operation to take Ratyan and Hardtein and Bashkuy would take 15 days. What happened was that the army advanced, in a covert operation, to Hardtein and took control of it, and thereafter went to Bashkuy and Ratyan.
The fact that the army easily took Bashkuy pushed it to advance farther and take Ratyan. It was previously decided that the army would take Ratyan in the second stage of the operation.
Q: From where did the army launch its covert operation?
From a-Seifat to Hardthein, and from there to Bashkuy and Ratyan.
Q: Did any army units make it to Nubul and Zahraa during the operation?
Two units with the army made it to Nubul, the first made up of 30 fighters and the second 40.